Washington state is moving ahead with its plans to allow scientific research of marijuana, sidestepping federal rules that critics say have hampered study of the drug for decades.
The state has a new marijuana research license that will allow laboratories to grow marijuana for scientific study. State officials expect to start accepting applications for the new license by January.
Supporters hope the state licensing helps provide new evidence of marijuana’s effectiveness as a medical treatment, potentially paving the way for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to ease restrictions on the drug’s possession and use.
“The importance of it really hit home when the DEA decided not to reschedule medical marijuana (last week) because, they said, ‘we just don’t have enough research,’ ” said state Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, who sponsored a bill this year to move Washington’s marijuana research license system forward.
“We need some research institutions to come up with great information that we as legislators can use as we create policy.”
Last week, the DEA cited the lack of evidence of a medical use for marijuana as a reason to keep it classified as a Schedule 1 drug, the most highly regulated category, which includes LSD and heroin.
But it’s precisely that classification of marijuana that makes researching the drug so difficult, said Sam Méndez, executive director of the Cannabis Law & Policy Project at the University of Washington School of Law.
“It’s been sort of a chicken-and-egg story, where the DEA and the federal government say marijuana is a Schedule 1 narcotic because there is not sufficient evidence to suggest there is a medical use for it,” Méndez said.
At the same time, “It is very difficult for people to produce research on it, which leads to there not being as much research out there as there should be,” he said.
In the past, researchers have been able to access research-grade marijuana from only a single source: The University of Mississippi.
While the DEA announced last week it will allow more U.S. facilities to apply to grow marijuana for research, Méndez said researchers will still face many barriers getting the federal permits to work with the federally sanctioned product, making a state research license as necessary as ever.
“It can take up to two years just to get the federal licenses in the first place, because the process is so long and onerous,” Méndez said.
Scientists also want to be able to apply the discoveries they make directly to the state’s legal medical and recreational pot system, something a federal research license would make difficult or impossible, said Jessica Tonani, CEO of Verda Bio, a research company in Seattle.
“If you developed a strain (of marijuana) that has pest resistance or something, you’d want the growers in the state to be able to access that,” she gave as one example.
Tonani, who has lobbied for years to create a state marijuana research license, is looking to selectively breed marijuana plants based on the cannabinoids they contain, so she can test whether certain types of cannabinoids are useful for treating various diseases.
Among the questions she wants to answer: “Is there a clinical profile that is best for MS patients, or cancer patients, or helps take away patients’ pain?”
“To do that we need to do selective breeding and then get those out in the population to monitor those effects,” she said.
Previously under Washington state law, only three types of licenses were available: producer, processor and retailer, none of which allows the kind of work Tonani envisions.
The state Liquor and Cannabis Board is now setting up a scientific review panel to scrutinize applications for the new marijuana research license, a first step toward opening the door to applicants, said board spokesman Brian Smith.
The scientific review panel — made up of officials from Washington State University and the University of Washington — will evaluate the quality of proposed research projects, as well as whether applicants have the expertise and facilities to carry out the work.
After developing rules to govern the application process, the LCB expects to start soliciting applications at the start of 2017, with the first licenses to be issued sometime after that.
State officials said they think the program puts Washington in a good position to become a pot-researching pioneer.
“The marijuana research license provides a unique opportunity for Washington State … to advance the field of marijuana research and solidify Washington as a leader in this field,” wrote Peter Antolin, the LCB’s deputy director, in a letter to officials at UW and WSU earlier this month.
While some other states, including Oregon, are working to develop similar licenses, “none have yet been implemented,” the letter says.
Questions remain about how well university researchers will be able to take advantage of the state-level research license, given the federal funding those institutions receive.
That funding “comes with many strings attached, including, when it comes to conducting research, the requirement to follow the necessary and sometimes cumbersome DEA regulations related to controlled substances,” wrote Dan Nordquist, the associate vice president of WSU’s Office of Research Support and Operations, in an email.
Méndez, at the UW, said he expects private companies will be the ones most interested in the state research license, but he thinks there may still be potential for universities to partner with state-licensed private labs.
Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a King County Council member and former Democratic state senator, called the limitations on university researchers “one of the real problems that still continues.”
Kohl-Welles, who sponsored legislation in 2015 to create the new license, said those problems highlight the need for the DEA to reschedule marijuana sooner rather than later.
“Here we have an opioid addiction epidemic, and they’re still allowing opioid-derivative drugs to be prescribed, but not marijuana,” she said.
“There’s been so much evidence and public acceptance, I think they should be reclassifying marijuana now, not waiting for sometime off in the future.”